Deported Palestinian Scholar Sami Al-Arian on His Chilling Post-9/11 Prosecution

Days after his deportation from the United States, the Palestinian activist and professor Sami Al-Arian discusses the end of his ordeal as the target of one of the most controversial prosecutions of the post-9/11 era. Sami was accused of ties to a militant group, but a Florida jury failed to return a single guilty verdict on any of the 17 charges against him. After prosecutors refiled charges, Sami chose jail time and deportation rather than face a second trial. For much of the three years following his arrest in 2003, he was imprisoned in solitary confinement and reportedly abused by prison staff under conditions Amnesty International called “gratuitously punitive.” In a broadcast exclusive, Sami joins us from Turkey for his first broadcast interview since being deported. We are also joined by his daughter Laila Al-Arian, a Peabody Award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Palestinian activist and professor Sami Al-Arian has been deported this week from the United States. In one of the most controversial prosecutions of the post-9/11 era, Al-Arian was jailed in Florida for five-and-a-half years on what many described as trumped-up charges. He was arrested in 2003 at a time when he was one of the most prominent Palestinian activists in the United States. In addition to teaching at the University of South Florida, Al-Arian was a frequent media commentator and speaker at antiwar rallies. He co-founded the Tampa Bay Coalition for Peace and Justice and the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom. Between 1997 and 2001, he visited the White House four times. He actively campaigned for George W. Bush in the 2000 election. But life for Sami Al-Arian changed after the September 11th attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: On September 28th, 2001, Sami Al-Arian was interviewed on Fox News by Bill O’Reilly about former University of South Florida professor Ramadan Shalah, who went on to become the leader of the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Beginning the next day, the University of South Florida, where Al-Arian worked, was overwhelmed by hundreds of threatening letters and emails. Thirty-six hours after the interview, the university put Professor Al-Arian on paid leave. In October of 2002, I interviewed Professor Al-Arian here in New York when he spoke at the Not in Our Name rally in Central Park. I asked him about his appearance on Bill O’Reilly.

SAMI AL-ARIAN: The way it was—the interview went, the guy attacked me viciously. So, many emails and threatening phone calls came to me personally at the department. So the department put me on paid leave, and then they banned me after that from coming to campus, within three months, because of the—you know, the orchestrated campaign by pro-Zionist groups and also by some politicians and some appointed people, people appointed by Governor Bush, particularly members of the board of trustees at the university. They voted to terminate my employment in December of 2001. It hasn’t been finalized, because faculty unions and other professors from around the country, as well as the American Association of University Professors, have been protesting. And the AAUP has threatened that if they do terminate my employment, they will be censured, which is a black mark. So, eventually, the president opted to sue me in court, to get me fired through the court system.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the university has banned you, on what grounds?

SAMI AL-ARIAN: It’s not really clear, except, you know, they say that the campus was disrupted. And it goes like: Since people have threatened my life, the campus has not been secure, and the best way to secure it is to terminate my employment. I don’t think—it’s a bogus argument. I don’t think it’s going to fly. But that’s the essence of what they’re saying.

AMY GOODMAN: So the university is saying because your life has been threatened, they’re banning you.

SAMI AL-ARIAN: That’s right, exactly. Instead of going against the real terrorists, the perpetrators of the threats, they’re going after me.

AMY GOODMAN: The Palestinian activist and professor Sami Al-Arian speaking in October 2002. Four months after our interview, in February 2003, Al-Arian was arrested and accused of being a leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Justice Department handed down a sweeping 50-count indictment against him and seven other men, charging them with conspiracy to commit murder, giving material support to terrorists, extortion, perjury and other offenses. He was held in solitary confinement leading up to the trial. This is an excerpt from the documentary USA vs. Al-Arian.”

SAMI AL-ARIAN: And I was put in solitary confinement 23 hours a day—and sometimes, for weeks, 24 hours a day. I wasn’t allowed even to see my attorneys, when she comes in. I wasn’t allowed to call my family. For six months, I was not allowed to make a single phone call.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: At the end of his trial in December 2005, the jury failed to return a single guilty verdict. Al-Arian was acquitted on eight of 17 counts against him, and the jury deadlocked on the rest. Four months after the verdict, he agreed to plead guilty to one of the remaining charges in exchange for being released and deported. He was later found guilty of civil contempt for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury in another case. In the end, Al-Arian was jailed from February of 2003 until September of 2008. For three-and-a-half years, he was imprisoned in solitary confinement. He was then held under house arrest until this week, when he was deported to Turkey. Last year, a federal court dropped all charges against him.

AMY GOODMAN: Sami Al-Arian joins us now from Istanbul, Turkey, in his first broadcast interview since being deported. And we’re joined by his daughter, Laila Al-Arian, a Peabody Award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., co-author with Chris Hedges of the book Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Sami Al-Arian, how does it feel to have left the United States, to have been deported to where you are right now in Turkey?

SAMI AL-ARIAN: It feels like I’m free, finally really feeling freedom for the first time in 12 years. I don’t have to watch over my back or my head, or think that someone is trying to monitor you or get you. So, it feels like you’re free.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole period that you’ve been under, essentially, house arrest, could you talk about that experience, as well?

SAMI AL-ARIAN: I mean, it’s much better than prison, of course, but you’re under house arrest, so basically you’re confined to your living environment. And though there were no restrictions, other than that you can’t leave the house, you still know that you’re being monitored all over you. So it’s not really total freedom. And unfortunately, after 9/11, many Americans feel that they live in surveillance and police state, and that’s a very discomforting feeling.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you choose to move to Turkey, Sami Al-Arian?

SAMI AL-ARIAN: Well, I actually applied to many countries, some in Latin America, some in the Middle East and Turkey. And I have friends who actually talked to the Turkish authorities, and they immediately made the decision to accept me. So, it’s a tribute to them and to their thinking, of that they value people who fight for freedom or have been dealt with unjustly. And I’m very grateful for that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re also joined by Laila Al-Arian, your daughter. Laila, what’s the most important thing for Americans to understand about your father’s case and the injustices that occurred here?

LAILA AL-ARIAN: I think what’s really important to take note of is the fact that when my father was arrested nearly 12 years ago in February, on February 20th, 2003, John Ashcroft went on national television and made pretty extraordinary claims about who my father is, completely distorting and outright lying about my father, calling him a terrorist on national television. And, of course, years later, none of that has borne true. My father was acquitted by 12 ordinary jurors in Florida. He said from the very beginning this is a political case. And I think what people should take away from what has been a nightmare for our family is the fact that in the United States of America there’s no room for political prisoners, there’s no room for politically motivated prosecutions. And, you know, my father was vindicated, even if he did have to eventually leave the country. I think when we look back at this case in history, we’ll see that, you know, it’s really a shameful part of our history. And, you know, it won’t be—it won’t be something that anyone will look at with any kind of pride. So, I hope we learn the lessons from this case.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Laila, the impact on you and the other members of your family, the many years of this ordeal?

LAILA AL-ARIAN: Of course it’s impacted us personally. My sister, the youngest sibling, was nine years old when all of this began. She’s now about to graduate college. So you can just see how long this ordeal has lasted for us. You know, it’s been, in many ways, pretty destabilizing, feeling that we’ve been—not feeling, knowing, actually, that we’ve been under surveillance, even as children. So, when we were going over—you know, when my father was preparing for his trial, and his attorneys, we learned that, in fact, all of our phone calls were recorded, even as children. We had the opportunity to even listen to some of the phone calls between us and our friends when we were in grade school. It’s something that’s pretty psychologically jarring and traumatizing. So I think really feeling that every aspect of your life is under surveillance by the government, simply because my father was an outspoken Palestinian advocate, is something that I’ll never truly get over.

But at the same time, there’s been a lot of positive things that have come out of this case, a lot of the relationships we’ve formed with many supporters, many activists, who have really, you know, shown tremendous courage in standing up for my father and his rights, and that’s what we’ll really remember more than anything else.

AMY GOODMAN: Sami, if you could talk, from your own perspective, about what happened to you? I played that clip from 2002, when I interviewed you at a big peace rally that you were addressing here in New York. You would soon be arrested. Your case factored into a Senate race in Florida. Talk about your journey.

SAMI AL-ARIAN: It’s really a story of what happened after 9/11. After 9/11, for whatever reason, the forces of intolerance, exclusionary politics and hegemony really took center stage, where rational people were no longer able to advance any kind of dialogue or rationality in their dealings. So what you have here is people who pressured the government just to take retaliatory action against any activists. And if they had the opportunity to do that, they just went for it.

For instance, you know, my case was celebrated as being the first case after the PATRIOT Act, meaning—you know, they said that the intelligence people did not speak to the prosecution’s, and therefore the government, to actually prosecute criminals, they didn’t know anything about my activities. And that was patently false, because during my discovery I saw an earlier version of the indictment back in 2000, when we were very active politically and my brother-in-law was in immigration court. They really wanted to indict me and stop what—you know, the activity that we were doing. But somehow Janet Reno, Department of Justice, refused, refused to prosecute that case. And it was every other act that they said the prosecution didn’t know from the intelligence people, was there up to 2000, so that was patently false.

And it was so political case that, you know, all legal standards were just—were just ignored. You know, my speedy trial—I was denied speedy trial. You know, the judge asked me in April of 2003 if I’m going to waive my speedy trial. When I said no, that meant that they had to try me within 70 days. The government immediately objected and said they were not ready. And if they were not ready to try the case, why did they indict?

So if you go back and see the political nature of the case—when USF was in hot water because they wanted to terminate my employment, and they couldn’t do it because of the pressure that was coming from all over the place, we found, for instance, that the president of USF went to the U.S. attorney, in public, asking him to investigate. And at the end of the meeting, the U.S. attorney announces, in February of 2002, the empaneling of a grand jury. Now, grand juries are supposed to be in secret. And here we had the university president going to the government, asking them to bail her out, and at the end of the meeting, they announced the empaneling of a grand jury. And then nothing happens.

And I saw in discovery, for instance, when the government wanted to settle—I mean, sorry, when the university wanted to settle with me, and they offered me almost a million dollars to resign, the board of trustees chairman objected, because he had been calling me, you know, all kind of names up to that point. And he was the governor’s appointee, Jeb Bush’s appointee. So he goes to Jeb Bush, basically—and we have that information from their lawyer—and he asks to bail him out. And then, somehow, instead of offering me a settlement, they sue me in court in order to fire me. It was a delaying tactic. And I could see, during my discovery, how the speed-up of the grand jury went in August, September, October and so on, until the indictment came back in February.

And then, we saw, you know, that the—you know, during the superseding indictment, when they indicted earlier in 2003, they had 17 counts against me. But they knew that half of these counts, the statute of limitations had run out. And the judge kept telling them, “When are you going to supersede?” But they didn’t want to supersede with less counts, so they added more counts on some transactions that took place in Chicago that I had no knowledge of, and they knew that I had no knowledge of it. And when we went to trial, they produced zero evidence of that. And then the person who was actually on the phone calls, on the transactions, on the bank account, on the—on everything that had to deal with Chicago, was soon acquitted, and I wasn’t, because two jurors couldn’t bring themselves to acquit on all counts. So, you know, from start to finish, it was a political case, unfortunately, that took a very ugly turn. And, you know, thankfully, we had great jurors who could see through that, and they would not, at the end, go along and support the government’s case.

AMY GOODMAN: Sami Al-Arian, we have to break, but we’re going to come back to this discussion. Sami Al-Arian, prominent Palestinian activist and professor, has lived in the United States for the last 40 years, on Wednesday was deported to Turkey. He was previously accused of ties to the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but a Florida jury failed to return a single guilty verdict on any of the 17 charges against him. We’re talking to Sami Al-Arian in Istanbul, Turkey, and his daughter Laila, the Peabody Award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C. We’ll continue with them in a moment.